Maria Full of Grace, 101
mins, rated M 15+, opening in cinemas on 24 March 2005.
(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).
Despite its title, Maria Full of Grace is not a religious story. It is
the story of drug couriers or, more crudely, “mules”. The Maria of the
title (beautifully played by newcomer – and Academy Award nominee –
Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young Columbian girl who lives in a
country town outside Bogotá. She has a boring job in a flower
plantation, stripping roses of their thorns. She’s tired of being
pushed around by her boss, sick of being the main bread-winner for her
family, and bored by her boyfriend. So when a dashing young stranger
suggests smuggling drugs as quick way of earning money and – more
importantly – escaping her dull and predictable life, Maria succumbs.
The ‘tagline’ for the movie describes starkly the what happens next:
These pellets contain heroine. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm
long and 1.4 cm wide. And they're on their way to New York in the
stomach of a 17-year-old girl.
Much as Martin Scorsese did for the business of gambling in the early
scenes of Casino (1995), director Joshua Marston shows the process of
drug-running in fascinating and sometimes excruciating detail. We learn
how the girls (and they are all girls) train themselves to swallow the
pellets, and how they keep them inside until the trip is complete. This
is not for the faint-hearted, but it is authentic, and it certainly
doesn’t glamorise the drug scene in any way.
This is an American film, but made by a small independent production
company. It claims to be based on 1,000 true stories. First-time
director Marston, who also wrote the screenplay, lives in Brooklyn,
which is home to many Columbian émigrés. The character of
Don Fernando, who helps Maria and her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega),
is based on a real person, Orlando Tobon. He plays himself in the film.
The other characters are composites, but the authenticity of the story
and the validity of the extensive research Marston did shines through.
These people are real, which makes what they go through all the more
And it’s not a neat story. It’s messy. People make stupid, spur-of-the
moment decisions. They make mistakes. They get confused. They let each
other down and they hurt each other. All this lends authority to the
Maria’s quick fix solution to her life of drudgery is contrasted with
the life of Carla and her husband, who have come to New York City from
Columbia to make a new life for themselves by dint of hard work. Maria
comes to see that such a life is possible. But is it for her? Can she
escape the consequences of the path she so rashly chose?
While this is not a religious story, religious imagery is there in
abundance. For example, the film’s poster shows Maria taking a drug
pellet as if it were the Host at Communion. There’s also her name, the
fact that she’s pregnant, with no place to stay, no home to give her
baby, and that she goes to visit a friend’s relative who is also
pregnant. Maria is, in the end, “Full of Grace”. But because of the
hard edge of the story, none of this (apart, perhaps, from the poster)
Marston uses his camera fluidly, sometimes handheld to add to the sense
of confusion and panic, at other times allowing it simply to rest on
Maria’s beautiful face, letting us imagine her thoughts. Combine all
this with performances of great naturalism, and a wonderful musical
score, and it makes for a fascinating, and at times terrifying, journey
into a demi-monde that few of us – by the grace of God – will ever